Once Was Not
f metal were math, Black Sabbath would be addition. Metallica would be multiplication, Morbid Angel algebra, and Meshuggah geometry. Schooling all these groups would be the multivariable calculus of Cryptopsy. Now, jamming out to multivariable calculus may not seem that appealing. But for those who use "brute force" and "elegance" to refer to math, Once Was Not will evoke the same descriptions.
Cryptopsy began in Montreal as a fairly straightforward death metal band. Its 1994 debut album, Blasphemy Made Flesh, showcased short attention spans, brain-frying chops, and the inimitable vocals of Lord Worm. An English teacher by day, Lord Worm had an unusually literate approach to lyrics, as well as a penchant for eating live worms on stage. (Lord Worm "communions" involve a chalice filled with worms, of which Lord Worm takes a handful and flings the rest into the crowd. He advises, "People, don't chew your worms! I'm fairly certain it's quite nasty. And they are digestible, by the way, being almost pure protein.") 1996's None So Vile was an absolute death metal classic, with improved production and songwriting. But Cryptopsy was moving in a more technical direction, and Lord Worm wanted to keep things brutal. He left, and Mike DiSalvo replaced him for Whisper Supremacy and And Then You'll Beg. These albums were dizzyingly technical, adding jazz-fusion influences, cinematic samples, and curious Primus-esque slap bass interludes. DiSalvo then left, replaced by Martin Lacroix for 2003's live album None So Live. That release was a success, partly based on Lacroix' voice which turned out to be an interesting blend of DiSalvo's tough-guy style and Lord Worm's death growl. But Cryptopsy fans clamored for Lord Worm's return, and in 2004, they got their wish.
Once Was Not is a good mix of old and new Cryptopsy. The technical arrangements of the DiSalvo years are still present, but to accommodate Lord Worm's vocals, the riffs are simpler and more brutal. Crucial to this album is its production, which is the best the band has ever had. Before, Flo Mounier's drums were light and crisp, and Eric Langlois' quirky basslines would clumsily stick out of the mix. Here, the sound is clear and strong, and for the first time Mounier's drums sound beefy. This is a big deal, as he is arguably the best drummer in metal today. In a genre filled with Shiva-armed sticksmen, Mounier stands out in terms of speed, taste, and now power. Mounier does the requisite 250 bpm blastbeats with aplomb, but he constantly throws in colorful fills, off-kilter accents, and subtle cymbal catches. One killer example is at 3:23 in "Adeste Infidelis." At first, the tumbling drums sound like someone falling down the stairs. Then the pattern repeats. The effect is like hearing a random bit of audio looped, except by a human, and in real-time. One could listen to just the drum track of this album and be entertained.
But this is multivariable calculus, after all, and the band's other elements are on full blast. The guitarists have picked up some new tricks, such as harmonics all over the neck ("Carrionshine") and twin guitar harmonies ("Angelskingarden"). "Luminum" opens the album with straight-up classical guitar, and "Endless Cemetery" has atypically lush melodies. Even the album's one failure, the weak "The Pestilence that Walketh in Darkness," has interesting, jazzy harmonies. Lord Worm's vocals don't have the low end they had when he was younger, but his diction is clearer now, and his high screams are still strong. With so many points of interest, this album could easily have become self-indulgent. But its sequencing and songwriting are near-perfect; instrumental interludes and cinematic samples give breathing room throughout, setting the stage for the next blastbeat passage. The effect is cartoonish: Elmer Fudd, while chasing Bugs Bunny, falls down a hole. He gets up, looks around, sees nothing, and climbs out, only to be flattened by a train coming out of nowhere. This element of surprise makes Once Was Not a wonderful first listen.
However, hearing Cryptopsy is like getting steamrolled repeatedly at once, and should not be rushed into without preparation. Start with some Slayer, move up to Suffocation, and get a grip on Nile and Hate Eternal. The full genius of Cryptopsy requires repeated spins to grasp, but once one "gets" Cryptopsy, it's hard to go back to other, lesser metal.